NORMAL — Approximately a half hour before game time of Saturday’s Missouri Valley Conference baseball match up between Illinois State and Bradley at Duffy Bass Field, Ernie Westfield still hadn’t decided whether he would rely on his blazing fastball, or the knuckle curve that he learned from Hall of Fame legend Carl Erskine.
When finally taking the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, Westfield proved there’s still some life left in his 72-year-old arm by “bringing the heat.”
Westfield and four other players who competed in the Negro League era of professional baseball were at Saturday’s game to help promote “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” a traveling exhibit now on display at ISU’s Milner Library.
While learning from Erskine how to throw his “bread and butter” pitch for Negro League teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, Westfield says he also picked up a valuable lesson from another baseball legend.
“When I was traveling with Satchel Paige, he told me to take an aspirin every day and that’s what I did,” he said. “And you know what, I never had a sore arm. We would travel around the country and play at fairs and they’d have two teams they would want us to play. There were times that I would pitch the first game and come back and start the second game and I never had a sore arm.”
While the two games a day — every day — barnstorming era of the Negro League has been romanticized through the years, Heron “Cuba Lee” O’Neal remembered it in a somewhat different way while enjoying a pre-game picnic on Saturday.
“Looking back on it now, I don’t know how I did it,” O’Neal said. “We had to wash our clothes and hang them in the back of the bus. We couldn’t go in the hotels, a lot of people told us we couldn’t eat in their restaurant and we experienced a lot of racial things. But that was a part of life and I learned from it. If I knew then what I know now, I’d probably been better off, but I think going through that helped me.”
O’Neal played for the Indianapolis Clowns, arguably the most legendary of the Negro League franchises and the last team to fold. Two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the major league baseball color barrier in 1947, the Clowns played their final competitive game in 1966. The organization then took on a Harlem Globetrotters flair and played humorous exhibitions, usually at minor league ballparks, until folding in the 1980s.
O’Neal recalls the feeling of hope he experienced when Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“My mother told me that someday I could be just like Jackie Robinson but it never happened,” he said. “It was a chance and I was looking forward to doing something like that, but it never came to pass.”
Westfield is concerned about youngsters today not taking advantage of the opportunity provided by Robinson and those who followed him into the major leagues.
“The man was a class act,” Westfield said. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done what he did. I’m hurt right now because black kids aren’t playing baseball and I really don’t think they understand what he did. When I speak to kids I tell them it’s up to them to carry on that legacy, but kids today have a tendency to follow what they see. They see Kobe Bryant and all of these big time basketball players and that’s their dream.”
Westfield said in his day, the passion was for baseball.
“Down south in the black community it was nothing but baseball,” he said of earlier times.
It’s a passion that he carries with him to this day.
“I went to a baseball game (in Chicago not long ago) and I wanted to carry my glove into the park,” he said. “But I said I better leave it or people would think I was an old guy trying to re-live my childhood. I got in there and there’s people way older than me with their gloves. That’s the love of the game.”
“Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience” is an exhibit provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and will be on display at Milner Library until May 11.